OLD GOLD IN THEM THAR HILLS

Kate BushIt’d be easy to be unaware of the fact the UK singles chart still exists in 2022; the kind of coverage this one-time essential pop cultural institution was once afforded is long gone, with its traditional trio of promotional tools – ‘Top of the Pops’, Radio 1’s Sunday teatime Top 40, and the music press – all now part of the over-40s collective memory bank rather than a living, breathing barometer of where it’s at. It seems the sole reason the singles chart survives as a redundant relic of another era is simply its ongoing role as a yardstick for the music industry to measure its reach in terms of sales; to the general public for whom it once held as much fascination as the Premier League table, however, it means nothing. Being able to name the week’s No.1 hit isn’t even something most teenagers could probably manage today, and the chart appears to retain the ‘singles’ prefix simply to distinguish its content from the album chart – although any song is eligible for inclusion as long as it’s downloaded enough times, official ‘single’ or not.

Therefore, the sudden presence of 63-year-old Kate Bush at the top of the singles chart with a 36-year-old song in 2022 should be something that barely raises an eyebrow. Yet, the return of Kate Bush to a position she hasn’t occupied since her 1978 debut hit, ‘Wuthering Heights’, has received extensive media reportage in the last few days; ‘Woman’s Hour’ even managed the coup of a down-the-line interview with the reclusive Kate – though the fact it was conducted via Ms Bush’s landline telephone was a nice touch that seemed to emphasise a somewhat quaint analogue element adding to her mystique. The vintage slice of Kate Bush’s oeuvre that currently sits atop the singles chart is ‘Running Up That Hill’, the lead single from her 1985 album, ‘Hounds of Love’. The track originally peaked at No.3, kick-starting Bush’s commercial renaissance following a fallow period in which her increasingly adventurous vision failed to connect with the record-buying public. Its elevation two places higher in 2022 is apparently due to heavy rotation in a Netflix series called ‘Stranger Things’.

Obscure gems excavated by movies, ads and TV series have provided many unjustly-overlooked musicians with a delayed pay-check in recent times, yet neither Kate Bush nor ‘Running Up That Hill’ fall into that category. Her career has spanned the best part of 45 years and constitutes dozens of hit singles and several chart-topping albums, beginning when she was just 19. She’s been a household name to more than one generation, and her exceedingly rare return to the stage in 2014 was greeted by some fans as the Second Coming; the fact her live show consisted of 22 nights at the same theatre – the Hammersmith Apollo – seemed to once more single her out as a unique performer unwilling to embark upon the touring treadmill, despite being away from the stage for 35 years. As a survivor of an era that produced such gifted and original talent, Kate Bush remains something of a national treasure, and for her to be back at No.1 – however meaningless an achievement that might now be – is indicative of not just an enduring affection for her, but symbolises something wider in pop culture.

30 years ago, the late music writer Ian MacDonald could sense which way the wind was blowing with remarkable prescience. When referring to the contemporary rap and dance scenes at the turn-of-the-90s, he wrote ‘The effect of presenting rhythms by drum machines and later by drum samplers, slave to sequencers, has been to elevate the groove over every other musical priority; at its simplest, this means that songs are now written from the rhythm track upwards, rather from the melodic, harmonic idea as was the case in almost all 60s music.’ For all its generous electronic enhancement – and Kate Bush was always ahead of the game on that score – the technology that enabled ‘Running Up That Hill’ to sound cutting edge in 1985 doesn’t overwhelm the human element, with Kate Bush’s distinctive voice and its inherent humanity shining above and beyond the pseudo-tribal drumbeat. Even the notoriously soulless production values of the mid-80s can’t entirely erase the personality of the performer in the way the Auto-tuned, mechanised music of the 21st century has managed to squeeze it out. And to a new generation discovering the Kate Bush back catalogue via Netflix exposure, perhaps it is this quality – and the novel structure of songs not ‘written from the rhythm track upwards’ – that makes her sound so refreshing to unaccustomed ears.

When contemporary pop bows to the need for melody to give its monotonous rhythm track an earworm, more often than not the earworm chosen is either a sample from an organic, analogue track of 50-odd years ago – which adds the aforementioned human element lacking from the present day toolbox – or a ‘new’ melody that borrows so heavily from an old one that it’s just a few bars away from accusations of plagiarism and an inevitable appearance in the copyright court; the ‘Blurred Lines’ case of 2015 ruled in favour of Marvin Gaye’s estate, following claims the Robin Thicke track leaned a little too close to Gaye’s 1977 hit, ‘Got to Give it Up’. ‘Blurred Lines’ was a hit largely on the back of its infamous video, the uncensored version of which featured a topless model; considering my own YT channel was recently terminated on spurious grounds of ‘nudity’, the said video was still on there just a few months ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if it still is. Anyway, I digress…

It’s interesting that Kate Bush’s overnight rediscovery is no isolated incident. An article by Ted Gioia that recently appeared in the Atlantic magazine quoted stats stating ‘old songs’ now constitute 70% of the US music market according to the latest data – yes, 70%. It seems you can’t keep an old song down, especially when new songs are found wanting in the qualities that have made old songs evergreen; the article goes on to say that the 200 most popular new tracks on the likes of Spotify actually account for less than 5% of total streams, a rate that was twice as high a mere three years ago. ‘Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact,’ writes Gioia. ‘Success was always short-lived in the music business, but now even new songs that become bona-fide hits can pass by unnoticed by much of the population.’

Some of the more vintage acts remaining alive and kicking have decided to capitalise on ongoing interest in their body of work by selling-off their back catalogues, making one last mint from the family silver whilst they’re still around to enjoy it, especially when royalties from streaming sites are so pitiful. Prominent veterans such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen have all taken this path recently, and they’re fortunate they have those back catalogues; no artist of their grandchildren’s generation has that advantage.

Old and deceased musicians also satisfy cravings for the classics by transcending the physical and hitting the road as holograms – Elvis Presley and Abba have both been reborn as live acts utilising such technology, and we can probably look forward to the trend becoming the norm as more of the golden generation of musicians shuffle off this mortal coil. Paul McCartney may be physically headlining this year’s Glastonbury merely days into his tenure as an octogenarian, but he’ll probably still be headlining the festival 20 years from now as a 3D CGI facsimile. Perhaps Her Majesty could try a similar approach, if it prevents Charles from a reign few outside of Clarence House are looking forward to.

Along with the findings revealed in the Ted Gioia Atlantic article regarding the dominance of old songs on streaming sites, the best-selling physical format in music right now is the vinyl LP. And Kate Bush is No.1 in the singles chart. Perhaps, just as bookworms were still reading ‘Wuthering Heights’ in 1978 – 130 years after its publication – music lovers will still be listening to ‘Wuthering Heights’ in 2108. Nobody today would junk Beethoven or Bach from the Proms on the grounds they’re ‘old’, so maybe we shouldn’t expect 20th century music to be excised from playlists either. Perhaps this is the beginning of its elevation to permanent ‘classic’ status, where it will probably remain as long as people want to listen.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/719591724

MOONAGE DAYDREAMS

Bowie 72 DHard to believe now, but there was once a time when David Bowie was regarded as a one-hit wonder; this was when, after a testing, frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful journey as an aspiring pop star throughout the 60s, Bowie finally gatecrashed the Top 5 at the very end of the decade. ‘Space Oddity’ launched him into the charts by capitalising on the 1969 Moon Landing, even if this atmospheric and unsettling song chronicling the doomed mission of an astronaut lost in space was at odds with the global euphoria that greeted Neil Armstrong’s achievement. It marked him out as one to watch, which must have made it all the more dispiriting for Bowie himself to then follow Major Tom into a black hole and fail to come up with that all-important second hit. At the beginning of the 70s, Bowie vanished off the public radar he’d spent so long trying to be picked up on and his career progressed largely unnoticed by record-buyers; during this period, his restlessness manifested itself as intriguing flirtations with musical trends then prevalent in that uncertain post-Beatles world.

His 1970 album, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, was an electrifying excursion into the dark heart of Hard Rock, a timely move in a year dominated by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. But Bowie’s exceptional intellect elevated the lyrical concerns of the album above the usual Blues Rock clichés, making for a uniquely original take on a style of music not renowned for highbrow content. Despite featuring the debut of Mick Ronson, the axe-man who would become Bowie’s priceless sidekick for the next three years, Bowie seemed to sabotage any potential success for the LP when he decided to pose for the sleeve wearing a dress. Mick Jagger may have got away with briefly donning a man’s frock in Hyde Park the year before, but he was a household name with carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted. Bowie was still only known for the one hit and had yet to build himself a fan-base that could translate into sustained commercial success. An album cover with him resembling a stoned Veronica Lake languidly lounging on the sofa was not one guaranteed to win him the favour of the denim crowd, despite the music on it delivering the goods. It flopped.

The next album, 1971’s ‘Hunky Dory’, tapped into the vogue for the singer-songwriter, with heavy reliance on acoustic guitar and piano. Despite it containing some of his most memorably melodic gems – including ‘Changes’, ‘Oh, You Pretty Things’, and the epic ‘Life on Mars’ – this album also failed to chart upon initial release. But one song on there, the Velvet Underground-influenced adrenalin rush of ‘Queen Bitch’, pointed the way to the future. A promotional visit to the US in which he made the acquaintance of Andy Warhol and Iggy Pop fired Bowie’s imagination and he returned home brimming with ideas for a persona combining the alluring artifice of transsexual Warhol Superstars like Candy Darling with the raw power and theatrical nihilism of The Stooges. Bowie’s wife Angie was a hustler on her husband’s behalf during this crucial stage of his career and her wide circle of outré associates provoked the transformation that was the first step towards the realisation of his new persona. Scissors were taken to Bowie’s flowing locks and the jagged thatch that remained was dyed an unnatural orange. Dragging his backing band into the spotlight, Bowie then generated a group image with outfits inspired by ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The Spiders from Mars were born.

It helped that Bowie was writing new songs at a phenomenal rate. Even before the release of ‘Hunky Dory’, he and the Spiders entered the studio to record them with another album in mind. Loosely linked to form a narrative, the songs told the tale of the character Bowie envisaged as the ultimate rock icon when such figures were pop cultural Gods, Ziggy Stardust. His new image also reflected the growing resurgence of a trashy, old-school rock ‘n’ roll glamour unseen since the heyday of Billy Fury a decade before, and one that was at odds with the fashion as the 70s opened; the music scene then was all about authenticity, rejecting showbiz and looking like a hobo. However, the emergence of former hippie minstrel Marc Bolan as a major chart act in 1971 – scoring two No.1s with his band T. Rex – was another key inspiration for Bowie; Bolan’s music was deliberately primitive yet undeniably invigorating, whilst his image was of a well-groomed androgynous elf; Bolan’s breakthrough opened the floodgates for many acts who became the leading lights of Glam Rock, and for Bowie it convinced him his ingenious idea had a ready-made, hungry audience. He was right, but he also had to convince a sceptical music press.

Casually proclaiming himself bisexual in a Melody Maker interview in early 1972, Bowie sent nervous ripples throughout a music scene still wary of gender-bending despite the great leaps forward of the 60s. But it garnered the outrage, shock, horror and headlines Bowie required as he and the Spiders hit the road and began bringing their exhilarating set-list to the curious kids. The combination of this exotic alien creature quite unlike anything anyone had seen on stage before with a catalogue of riff-tastic instant rock classics was the magic recipe for success Bowie had spent a decade furtively searching for, one that the false dawn of ‘Space Oddity’ made him determined not to let slip through his fingers. None of the attention Bowie’s striking image attracted would have lasted long had he not possessed the musical mettle to back it up, however – and he did.

The release of ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ exactly 50 years ago today was the foundation stone of a commercial career that lasted all the way to Bowie’s premature passing 44 years later. It became the first LP of his to chart in the UK and eventually peaked at No.5 whilst continuing to sell for decades thereafter. Its success was also aided by the single lifted from it, ‘Starman’. Having not troubled the singles charts for three years, viewers with a vague memory of a bubble-haired folkie were left open-jawed when Bowie returned to ‘Top of the Pops’ and unveiled Ziggy before an unprepared nation. As Bowie suggestively slung his arm around Mick Ronson, the shockwaves could be felt in every school playground in Britain the following day; it told many a confused kid it was chic to be a freak and gave them the confidence to follow suit. Many of them took the Bowie template and expanded it when they became glamorous chart regulars themselves a decade later.

The ‘Ziggy’ LP didn’t necessarily break new musical ground in the way Bowie went on to do, but it was a good place to start; by contributing his own intoxicating collision of high and low art to the nascent Glam scene, he enabled the Art School crew of Roxy Music, Sparks and Cockney Rebel to storm the charts and take the sound beyond the more basic appeal of Gary Glitter. Even Lou Reed managed to score a Top 10 hit courtesy of the Bowie connection, and the leper messiah also generously gave Mott the Hoople one of his pivotal numbers of the era, ‘All the Young Dudes’. With such pearls as ‘Five Years’, ‘Hang On To Yourself’, ‘Suffragette City’, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ and the LP’s title track, Bowie had announced his arrival in style and by the following spring, the release of the ‘Aladdin Sane’ album was heralded with an instant No.1 and a sold-out tour that saw his star in a seemingly unstoppable ascendancy.

The clever move of killing Ziggy on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973 didn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t an afterlife. Ziggy lingered for a good year or so in Bowie’s haircut and music until he finally buried him by embracing ‘Plastic Soul’ in 1975 with the release of ‘Young Americans’. But Ziggy had been Bowie’s Open Sesame to the masses and would never be forgotten either by the generation that fell in love with him first time round or all the generations to come for whom he would prove to be a stellar inspiration. Half-a-century on, it remains yet another landmark in a long-gone age overflowing with them.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/719879058

A LOST ART

Family TVOn the whole, I can think of far preferable sedatives than daytime television; heroin or methadone spring to mind. Daytime TV for me evokes grim images of care home residents slowly succumbing to rigor mortis as they gather dust in sub-tropical temperatures before the small screen, powerless to resist the unremittingly bland diet of soporific sludge that gushes out of every daytime TV pore, leaving the viewer feeling as though they’re being smothered in a sickly-scented cardigan whilst their feet set in a bucket of treacle. Even if one disregards the dreary content, one thing these excuses for entertainment seem to share is the same theme tune – or at least that’s what it sounds like; whilst the themes themselves are as forgettable as the programmes, they all appear to employ those awful ‘synth horns’ that were once the province of Phil Collins hits from the 80s, and each tirelessly upbeat burst of their infantile jollity is akin to being trapped in a lift with a Butlin’s redcoat.

Whilst the paucity of original and gifted minds working today in a once-abundant field of talent such as pop music is regularly discussed, if one widens the net to encompass areas that used to be touched by trends in pop, the dearth of maestros is even more evident – none more so than in another once-abundant field, that of ‘library music’. A deep reservoir of earworms specifically penned for use in commercials or as TV and radio themes, at one time library music – along with specially commissioned themes cut from a similar sonic cloth – provided British viewers and listeners with melodies that simply refuse to go away; many infiltrated our ears as children and they’re still there. Some of the most prolific composers responsible for these persistent portals to happier times are anonymous to all but the most devoted aural archaeologists, even if their body of work stands up as far stronger than anyone ever anticipated when their output was regarded as little more than dispensable Muzak. And, needless to say, it blows the synth horn bots out of the water.

When most vintage rock and soul genres had been plundered and sampled to death by DJs, producers and Hip Hop acts in the 90s, a sudden wave of interest in the untapped riches of archive library music, such as that housed on the books of KPM, led to the so-called ‘Lounge-core’ craze. CD reissues of long-deleted LPs that had spent years in the charity shop bargain bins were suddenly appearing on hip Indie labels, with everything from test card music to novelty noodlings on early synthesizers selling like cult hotcakes. Though the fad passed – as fads do – this ‘ironic’ appreciation of an imaginary soundtrack to an Austin Powers dinner party didn’t erase the nostalgic wave still capable of sweeping over the listener whenever one of the classic library pieces launches a fresh assault on the ears. A warm analogue glow flows through every note and what strikes the listener today is just how well the composers responsible for these tracks managed to take rock elements characteristic of the 60s’ cutting edge and marry them to traditional ‘easy listening’ vibes, producing a uniquely cool hybrid of old and new.

Key musical elements of the Golden Age of library music and theme tunes (the late 60s/early 70s) seem to be fuzzy guitars, the Hammond organ, strings, and lots of horns. Some of the best themes of this era were from the ITC stable of adventure series, as well as the Gerry Anderson shows; whilst John Barry was responsible for some of the former, Barry Gray composed the majority of the latter. A little more well known due to his knack of writing 60s pop hits for Petula Clark and his wife Jackie Trent, Tony Hatch not only worked with the young David Bowie, but his Midas touch gave us memorable themes for ‘Man Alive’, ‘The Champions’, and ‘Sportsnight’ – as well as…er…‘Crossroads’; he also produced a series of future ‘Lounge-core’ classics with his own orchestra. He later became a TV celebrity playing a proto-Simon Cowell alongside the equally sharp-tongued Mickie Most on the panel of the 70s ITV talent show, ‘New Faces’, but it is his musical talents that warrant an inclusion in this particular hall of fame.

Keith Mansfield was a composer who worked extensively in the library world, but also provided the theme tunes for ‘Grandstand’, ‘The Big Match’, and the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage; Johnny Pearson was the leader of both his own Sounds Orchestral band and the Top of the Pops Orchestra (for 15 years), though he composed both library music and numerous memorable TV themes at the same time, including the likes of ‘Captain Pugwash’, ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, and even ‘News at Ten’; Cliff Adams may be remembered with a groan by more than one generation of teenagers waiting for the Sunday Top 40 when leading his silky-smooth singers on ‘Sing Something Simple’, yet his contribution to television came via the commercial break, for which he wrote the jingles we still associate with Murray Mints, Fry’s Turkish Delight, and ‘For mash, get Smash’ amongst numerous others.

Another name worthy of mention is Alan Hawkshaw, who was a brief member of The Shadows before branching out into library music. Several of his library tunes ended up as TV themes, including the smoky organ grooves of ‘Dave Allen at Large’ and – in a weird occurrence that highlighted the non-exclusive nature of library tracks – the tune most of us remember as the original ‘Grange Hill’ theme, yet one which was simultaneously used on an ITV schools series called ‘Alive and Kicking’ as well as ‘Give Us A Clue’; also, though Cliff Adams wrote it, it was Hawkshaw and his band who performed the Bond-esque theme that accompanied the well-remembered ads ending with the tagline, ‘And all because the lady loves Milk Tray’.

Many of the tunes associated with this productive era that found their way onto television or radio as themes with a surprising longevity were put together by musicians with a solid track record in the business, often emanating from a jazz world that didn’t pay half as well as the royalties on a theme tune guaranteed to be aired at least once a week. Take the likes of British jazz legend Johnny Dankworth, for example; he was responsible for the toe-tapping Shepherd’s Bush Bebop of the original ‘Tomorrow’s World’ theme and for ‘Beefeaters’, the tune Tony Blackburn opened with every morning on the first Radio 1 breakfast show between 1967-73. Back then, most radio shows had theme tunes, including the shows of each star DJ to jump ship from the pirates to Radio 1 when it debuted. Library music was regularly called upon to provide them, and many of these tunes have stuck in the memory, even if we can’t always pinpoint their source. They’re all tunes we know, though we may not know where we know them from.

The familiarity of library music from this period is due to the way in which it was widely disseminated across television and radio, just as likely to be found as the start-up theme for an ITV franchise-holder, introducing a schools programme, featuring on a test card or opening a regional Sunday soccer show as it would be on a networked institution such as ‘Mastermind’, which has always begun with an aptly-titled piece named ‘Approaching Menace’ by library composer Neil Richardson. The fact these tunes have remained part of our pop cultural wallpaper and have crept into our collective memory bank with stealth is testament to the depth of unsung talent that once worked in an unsung arena. Easy to dismiss, but not so easy to forget, the melodies these men made are just one more example of how even the most seemingly throwaway elements of what we used to have far outshine the majority of what we have now.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreonhttps://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

OLD-SCHOOL TIES

WatermanSad but true – Dennis Waterman is dead, and another one has bitten the dust. Perhaps he can lay claim to being one of the most active actors on vintage TV channels specialising in mining the rich archive of British television via his decade-long stint as a household name via ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Minder’ – stalwarts of the schedules such channels live by. But there was more to Waterman’s CV. Take, for example, ‘Joe’s Ark’, a 1974 ‘Play for Today’ by another Dennis, this one being Potter. Angharad Rees, soon to become better known as Demelza in ‘Poldark’, played a terminally-ill cancer sufferer retreating to the rooms above her father Freddie Jones’s pet shop in Wales to breathe her last. Dennis Waterman played her wayward brother, eking out a seedy living providing a musical accompaniment to strippers in dodgy clubs; Waterman’s character makes his way home to see his sister and build a few bridges with his God-fearing father, but arrives a little too late. It’s one of Potter’s most underrated and moving plays, and Waterman gives a touching performance that would probably surprise those only accustomed to his more beefy roles.

The risk of typecasting was a genuine gamble for actors on television in the 1960s and 70s – one thinks of Harry H Corbett’s tragic failure to evade the long shadow cast by ‘Steptoe and Son’ – so it’s no wonder many successful character actors approached the prospect of a hit series with trepidation, particularly those who were in the process of establishing themselves as familiar faces. Dennis Waterman had been a minor child star – starring in an early 60s TV adaptation of the ‘Just William’ books – and adolescent one-to-watch, making a mark as a young man in the movie version of the celebrated (and controversial) ‘Wednesday Play’ set in his own Clapham backyard, ‘Up the Junction’; but he carved a career for himself as a significant grown-up character actor by appearing in one-off episodes of numerous popular small screen series in the early 70s.

His versatility was apparent by the fact he occasionally ventured into the comedic arena, such as his appearance in a 1973 episode of ‘Man About the House’; by contrast, that same year he also scored a memorable cameo in ‘Special Branch’, the hard-hitting police series produced by Euston Films – the speciality film wing of Thames Television. He’d also appeared as a customarily sinister Gestapo officer in an episode of ‘Colditz’ and in another characteristically labyrinthine Potter play, ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ as well as the token Hammer horror outing (1970’s ‘Son of Dracula’), which was a rites-of-passage necessity for up-and-coming actors at the time. By this stage of his career, Waterman was certainly being noticed, though as a recognisable face rather than name. However, all that was about to change.

‘The Sweeney’ began life as a TV movie called ‘Regan’, which aired in the ‘Armchair Cinema’ slot on ITV in 1974. The potential for a series was immediately evident, and Dennis Waterman resumed his role as the reluctant second-in-command to John Thaw’s DI Regan when ‘The Sweeney’ went into production a few months later. Debuting on ITV at the beginning of 1975, ‘The Sweeney’ famously rewrote the rulebook in the way the British police force was portrayed on television, and Waterman’s George Carter was the perfect counterpoint to Thaw’s Jack Regan, exuding a less cynical and less grizzled persona than his superior. The two together exhibited a macho chemistry that has ultimately outlived them both, setting the template for a nostalgic, Brut-drenched, buddy-buddy relationship which breezes into contemporary touchy-feely sensibilities as no-nonsense fresh air.

When ‘The Sweeney’ ended in 1978, John Thaw took several years to find a character which could represent his middle age in the same way Jack Regan summed-up his prime. Dennis Waterman, on the other hand, moved on far quicker, but even the character of ex-boxer Terry McCann wasn’t an instant hit. It took a good series-and-a-half before Waterman’s character and the winning dynamic alongside veteran George Cole as Arthur Daley struck a chord with the viewing public, though by the early 80s ‘Minder’ had established itself as one of the UK’s most popular and culturally prescient TV shows. One thing it did do was to extend Waterman’s televisual omnipotence; he even scored a top ten hit with the ‘Minder’ theme tune, ‘I Could Be So Good For You’, in 1980, and he found himself back on ‘Top of the Pops’ three years later via an unlikely Christmas novelty duet with George Cole, ‘What Are We Gonna Get for Er Indoors’.

Whilst starring on ‘Minder’, Dennis Waterman also remained open to other, more intriguing, offers. His passion for the beautiful game inspired an affectionate tribute to football’s amateur beginnings with the 1982 TV movie he himself financed, ‘The World Cup: A Captain’s Tale’, which dramatised the famous triumph of West Auckland FC in winning the first attempt at an international soccer tournament, the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, in 1909; he also played a major part in the BBC’s landmark feminist fantasy, ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil’ in 1986. By this time, he had quit ‘Minder’ and starred in several TV series without making the kind of impact he’d previously enjoyed, though he was the ideal host for the retro-football series, ‘Match of the 70s’, which aired on the BBC in 1995-96, tapping into the vogue for the decade Waterman was inexorably linked with; around the same time, renewed interest in ‘The Sweeney’ led to him becoming the programme’s unofficial curator whenever it was profiled on clips shows in the absence of contributions from John Thaw.

Ongoing affection for ‘The Sweeney’ unquestionably played its part in Waterman’s final TV success, ‘New Tricks’, in which he starred from 2003 to 2014; this BBC series focused on a team of ageing ex-police detectives brought back to solve cold cases and featured many familiar faces from the 70s, including in its original line-up James Bolam and Alun Armstrong. Despite the indisputably odd appearance of an unnaturally white set of dentures, Waterman’s strong presence and association with the era the old jacks were supposed to have been prominent coppers in aided the show’s success and contributed to its ultimate longevity; he also once again ‘sang the theme tune’, which was played upon in a typically surreal recurring sketch in ‘Little Britain’ that left Waterman himself more than baffled. At the same time, however, the skit seemed to solidify his enduring place in British TV’s cultural wallpaper.

The cause of Dennis Waterman’s death at the age of 74 has yet to be revealed, though one often formed the impression he was a man who enjoyed life in ways that are now frowned upon by the acting profession; he received two convictions for drunk-driving and was married four times, the most eventful (from a tabloid perspective) being his 11-year relationship with Rula Lenska, one marked by physical violence on Waterman’s part. He was certainly ‘old-school’, though one suspected this was a tag he himself wouldn’t have objected to. Part of the appeal of ‘New Tricks’ was, like ‘Life on Mars’, its knack in reflecting late 20th century generations’ inability to get to grips with the constantly changing unwritten rules and regulations of the 21st century and, in turn, mirroring the audience’s similar confusion at what could and couldn’t be said both in polite company and in the corporate business the police force has morphed into. Dennis Waterman was undoubtedly one of yesterday’s men, though that’s not a criticism; it’s a compliment.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

TV TIMES

Bingewatch30-odd years ago, when satellite dishes were the latest addition to the increasingly-expanding abundance of street furniture, the allure of new television channels beyond the reach of the traditional terrestrial broadcasters prompted the girl I was living with at the time to invest in just such an alternative. We ended up with Cable TV, and despite the accompanying literature boasting about all the new shows we could now access, most of its appeal for me was as a repository for the long-forgotten programmes the old television lords and masters had dispensed with years before. There wasn’t much new material on offer that I myself found capable of piquing my curiosity – bar the novelty exhibitionism of ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ long before Jeremy Kyle encouraged the Great British Underclass to wash their own dirty linen in public; but the archive channels suddenly at my fingertips were a rich source of nostalgic entertainment and also (as it was still the 90s) a strain on my limited finances due to the amount of blank VHS tapes I felt compelled to buy to preserve them on.

In the intervening decades, the innovation of the DVD box-set and the advent of YouTube have opened some of the more neglected TV vaults to the public and this is a trend that certainly seems ongoing. Spending a weekend away with all the streaming services and vintage channels I’m not able to receive at home can find me enjoying classic ‘Star Trek’ – and I can’t remember the last time that received a terrestrial outing – and Gerry Anderson’s live-action landmark, ‘UFO’ amongst numerous others. I appreciate my own personal tastes aren’t everyone’s, and many sign-up for the kind of packages offered by the likes of Sky, Virgin or BT in order to catch the contemporary US shows that claim column inches and win awards – the sort of programmes ‘everybody’s talking about’ and so on. I’ve watched a few of these, I admit, and some are pretty good, especially when compared to the generally dismal standard of shows airing on the BBC or ITV, though I’m largely looking for an antique gem when I skim through the thousand-and-one channels listed; and I can usually find one.

During lockdown, the unexpected introduction of time on the hands of an overworked population unaccustomed to catching its breath often translated as binge-watching, whereby Netflix in particular saw a surge in subscribers eager to lose themselves in the sort of addictive mini-series it appears to churn out with effortless ease. Not being a subscriber myself, I found the aforementioned vintage shows to be my own personal source of comfort food for the eyes via the physical box-set, though my diversion was merely a manifestation of a common ailment when the world outside had suddenly taken on an unsettlingly alien element that made a retreat into a parallel universe preferable. This pattern for the populace as a whole reached a peak in 2020 and ’21, though the payback for lockdown in terms of industry and the economy grinding to an ill-advised halt has seen 2022 take on a very different tone for the viewer.

According to data released last week, this year has seen a telling reversal of the lockdown trend when it comes to subscribing to streaming services – 1.51 million subscriptions were cancelled during the first three months of 2022 as (what is already – inevitably – being called) the Cost of Living Crisis begins to bite. Despite 58% of UK homes being signed-up to one streaming service or another, 38% of those asked in a survey by market research company Kantar revealed they intended to cancel such subscriptions in order to save a few quid; the same time period also saw a noticeable decline in new subscribers. In the case of market leader Netflix, last year’s intake was approximately half of those who joined the club the year before. Evidence suggests Netflix and Amazon seem to be the last resort cancellations when others, such as Disney + or BritBox, tend to be first in line when it’s time for streaming services to walk the plank. But even the mighty Netflix is seeing its omnipotence challenged not just by competition, but by economic necessity. In 2022 so far, shares in the company have dropped by 35%, with over $50bn wiped off Netflix’s market value.

Still a relatively recent phenomenon in TV-land, streaming has followed a route all innovations on the small screen have followed, whether colour television, the home VCR, satellite, cable or the DVD, in that it had a rapid take-off, marched into the nation’s homes with a seemingly unstoppable pace, and has now levelled out a little, finding its feet and its permanent place as a steady option for the viewer. There was bound to be a slowing down eventually, and the expected incursion of competition for audiences was inevitable; less so the pandemic, which undoubtedly aided the rise of streaming in the first place and has now contributed to the abrupt halt of its speedy ascent. As a lazy leisure pursuit, watching the telly has been with us now for longer than most of us have been alive, yet compared to food or heating our homes it remains something of a luxury, with the additional payment required for streaming services a further indulgence that the current economic crisis has indeed forced some subscribers to confront as a luxury and to prioritise accordingly.

Globally, Netflix’s total subscribers have fallen by 200,000 this year and experts predict a further two million will follow suit by the summer. The post-pandemic economic situation has evidently been a factor in this, whilst many feel the excess of streaming choice is simply too much when the working-from-home aspect that fuelled the astronomical surge in subscription to streaming means there’s less time available to binge than there was a couple of years ago. Analyst Michael Hewson said, ‘Netflix’s wider problem, along with the rest of the sector, is that customers don’t have unlimited funds and that one or two subscriptions is usually enough. Once you move above that, something has to give in a cost-of-living crisis, and while Netflix is still the market leader, it doesn’t have the deeper pockets of Apple, Amazon or Disney, which makes it much more vulnerable to a margin squeeze.’

Even taking into account the unusual circumstances which facilitated Netflix’s rise to its apogee of popularity, it could only realistically go so far before its progress eased up a little. As things stand, it’s still ahead of the game with 220 million subscribers and constant flow of shows that excite TV reviewers, Twitter and audiences alike in its upgraded equivalent of ‘water-cooler television’. The quarterly growth Netflix has experienced ever since 2011 couldn’t be sustained forever, and price increases have also played their part in prompting a partial exodus from the service, costing it 600,000 subscribers across North America; Netflix’s voluntary withdrawal from the profitable Russian market due to Ukraine has clearly done a fair bit of damage, too – with the loss of 700,000 Russian subscribers to date. Mind you, the price increases have probably aided revenue, which has continued to grow despite everything.

For me, streaming services are something friends tend to have, and I don’t say that as a roundabout way of pleading poverty either. It’s a bit like how friends had toys I didn’t as a child, in that it doesn’t unduly bother me; I was content to play with them when in their presence, but I didn’t cry myself to sleep because I didn’t have them as well. I don’t mind watching some of these talked-about shows if I happen to be at the house of someone who does subscribe – or if someone kindly bungs them on a memory stick for me; but I find I simply don’t have the time to invest in binge-watching on a regular basis. Even the DVD box-sets of vintage shows I’ve often written about tend to be viewed in daily instalments – making use of a spare hour I might have before moving on. We each have our own brand of televisual escapism, after all.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

HALF AN ARMFUL

HancockFor anyone too young to recall what the Great British Sunday used to be like before John Major moved the goalposts and allowed the retail industry to extend its week from six days to seven, there’s still no better document than the 1958 episode of the radio incarnation of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ titled ‘Sunday Afternoon at Home’. The unique boredom once associated with the day of rest is absolutely nailed as Anthony Aloysius repeatedly yawns, routinely checks the clock, struggles to find things to occupy the endless hours stretching ahead, and suffers a stodgy Sunday lunch cooked by Hattie Jacques. ‘I thought my mother was a bad cook,’ says Hancock, ‘but at least her gravy used to move about.’ The nearest evocation in recent times of how Sundays once were came with the first lockdown, though even that didn’t entirely recapture the bleak, existential ambience conveyed in Hancock’s weary statement, ‘Oh, I do hate Sundays’; he delivers it in a miserable manner that provokes a laugh from the listener and the studio audience, underlining how so much English humour is derived from familiar situations with no apparent humour in them. Perhaps this is a key to Hancock’s enduring appeal and timeless relevance.

Revisiting the television version of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ after a lengthy absence, it’s interesting how a series which is now between 61 and 66-years-old can still retain its ability to inspire laughter. Nothing says ‘this is an old programme’ quite like a monochrome telerecording, and the various pop cultural references dotted throughout the scripts can even outfox a pop cultural nerd like me; yet strip away the signs of the times, and many of the actual situations the Hancock character finds himself in remain relevant and essentially universal. That distinctive character, developed by the man himself and his scriptwriters – the redoubtable Galton and Simpson – is an archetype whose talent for starting an argument in an empty room has echoes down the years in the numerous British sitcom characters that followed; you can see elements of Hancock in everyone from Basil Fawlty to Victor Meldrew to David Brent – characters we wouldn’t necessarily want to be trapped in a lift with (as happens in a famous Hancock episode), but who are nevertheless capable of articulating the exasperation many of us feel in certain social situations.

The Hancock character is a narcissistic, pompous, know-it-all with a far higher opinion of himself than anybody who comes into contact with him has. However, at the same time, the people he regularly comes into contact with are often the kind whose superior and dismissive attitude towards Hancock is worthy of being challenged – mainly petty authority figures who need taking down a peg or two, and the kind we still all have to deal with today, whether the snooty receptionist in the GPs surgery or the Jobsworth types who had a ‘good’ pandemic; and Hancock is not a character prepared to stand by and keep schtum. He’s not afraid to say out loud what most of us think when confronted by such people.

Often, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ is unfairly reduced to a minor footnote in the ‘Steptoe and Son’ story, viewed as providing Ray Galton and Alan Simpson with the necessary grounding to reinvent the TV sitcom once they and Hancock went their separate ways. On television, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ ran for five years (1956-61), whereas Albert and Harold’s saga stretched all the way to twelve, well into the colour era and the consequent guarantee of recurrent repeats long after both stars were deceased. Yes, by recruiting straight actors rather than comics into the lead roles, Galton & Simpson did indeed break new ground and set the template for every sitcom to come; but the fact Tony Hancock emerged from the immediate post-war variety circuit didn’t necessarily mean he was content with the formulaic vehicles for such graduates that were the staple diet of radio and television comedy in the 1950s. US TV had proven, with the likes of ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘Sgt Bilko’, that it was possible to present self-contained stories in 30 minutes, expanding the usual five-minute sketches into the full programme whilst dispensing with guest stars, musical interludes and dancing girls, and ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ (which debuted on the BBC Light Programme in 1954) gradually managed to lay the foundations for the Great British sitcom we know and love today.

The main difference between the radio and TV versions of the show is the fact that Hancock was able to play upon his talent for visual humour on screen in a way that wasn’t possible on the wireless. His facial reactions require no dialogue and are able to elicit laughter that would only have excluded the listening public in the radio series; a wonderful example comes in the TV episode, ‘The Missing Page’, in which the hushed setting of a public library denies Hancock the chance to describe the plot of a pulp novel to Sid James in words, so he acts it out brilliantly in mime. Indeed, as great as Galton & Simpson’s scripts are, perhaps sometimes too much emphasis is placed on them at the expense of Hancock’s superlative interpretation; after all, several have been remounted with other actors in recent years, and none have come close to Hancock’s intuitive comic timing.

Although Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques occasionally appear on the TV show, the only regular from radio to transfer properly to television was Sid James, playing Hancock’s dodgy lodger and sidekick. So successful was this partnership that Hancock began to become concerned the public were viewing the pair as a double act, even though their chemistry together was a winner. In fact, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ is fairly unique when it comes to a sitcom in that it gets better as it goes on; there’s no slow diminishing of quality at all. Indeed, by the time of the penultimate series, it reaches a peak it’s hard to see being bettered. It’s possible this was a factor that enabled Hancock’s restless ambition to assert itself and demand a shake-up of the format for what turned out to be the last series. Galton & Simpson responded to the challenge – Sid James and 23 Railway Cuttings East Cheam were both jettisoned, and the show even lost five minutes per episode as it was renamed simply ‘Hancock’. The character relocated to a bedsit in Earls Court and delivered some of the show’s most memorable episodes, including ‘The Radio Ham’ and ‘The Blood Donor’.

Hancock’s desire to spread his wings also paid off with the two movies he made in the early 60s, ‘The Rebel’ and ‘The Punch & Judy Man’. Unfortunately, though now recognised as classics of British comedy cinema, the films failed to reproduce the success of the TV and radio series at the time, and Hancock’s career as a cinematic comic actor never really took off in the way he envisaged. Walking away from the BBC series and Galton & Simpson at the peak of his popularity was a brave step that certainly ensured the series went out on a high, but Hancock never recaptured its brilliance or its audience and both his life and career went into a swift, sad decline thereafter. His battle with the bottle didn’t help, exacerbating his demons as the desired career revival failed to materialise. The famous ‘Face to Face’ interview he did in 1960 is perhaps the best insight into his incurable yearning for perfection that he didn’t seem to realise he’d already achieved on the small screen.

A 1971 audio interview with Sid James provides a poignant tribute to Hancock three years after his suicide; James describes Hancock as ‘the greatest friend I ever had’ and then goes on to recount a moment when he spotted Hancock from his car window in Piccadilly – a bewildered and intoxicated shadow of a man marooned on a traffic island. Intending to give him a lift, James turned his car around and pulled-up, only to find Hancock had gone; he never saw him again. Whether Tony Hancock could have returned to his late 50s and early 60s peak had he lived is one of those never-to-be-resolved conundrums, though what he left behind from that peak still stands tall as one of TV’s finest comedy masterpieces that the passage of time has not dimmed the ability of to make the viewer laugh over and over again. A comedian can ask for no greater legacy.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

AS IF BY MAGIC…

Mr BennKyiv, Paris or London – any would suffice as a suitable location in which to set this post, as all three are currently monopolising the headlines. I’ll opt for the latter city, though not 11 Downing Street as an address (or non-address). After all, the official residence of a politician who was oddly just as wealthy back when he was dishing out ‘Rishi’ll Fix It’ badges to a furloughed workforce as he is now (when he isn’t quite so popular) is not the subject to catch my eye, nor is his other half who (again) was just as sly at evading taxes this time two years ago as she was until caught out today. No, when it comes to the capital I think I’ll instead head for 52 Festive Road. Anyone between the ages of roughly 30-60 will recognise the street; it was the home of a certain Mr Benn. His Christian name was not Tony, though his Christian name was never actually revealed; in that wonderfully old-school British tradition, his chosen gender pronoun was always the name everyone knew him by.

Along with Gordon Murray’s ‘Trumptonshire’ trilogy, ‘The Herbs’ and ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, ‘Mr Benn’ was one of the new wave of BBC TV’s ‘Watch with Mother’ programmes at the turn-of-the-70s that capitalised on the innovation of colour television and propelled the early afternoon pre-school slot into the fresh decade and beyond; by producing these shows in colour at a time when the majority of households remained rooted in monochrome, the makers of the said programmes were looking to the future, safe in the knowledge that their productions would survive repeat runs for the next ten or twenty years whilst established mainstays such as ‘The Flowerpot Men’ and ‘The Woodentops’ would bite the black & white dust as the Beeb sought to sell their 625-line baby to the masses for the imminent era. ‘Mr Benn’ debuted in the same month Britain went decimal and was to stay a fixture of the post-lunchtime landscape until the early 1990s.

It’s a testament to the changing nature of children’s television that – although appearing in glorious full colour – ‘Mr Benn’ largely consisted of a series of static illustrations that the rostrum camera panned along during each episode; animation was kept to a strict minimum, yet the audience’s disbelief was nevertheless able to be suspended throughout. There was no need for the constant prodding of the attention span back then, unlike the iPad earworm that the child opposite me on a train journey the other day required in order to keep her sedated; that the rest of the passengers within her immediate radius had to endure what sounded like a succession of Munchkin nursery rhymes set to high-speed Ibiza b.p.m.s highlighted the difference between the cherished, private experience of ‘Watch with Mother’ in the front room womb half-a-century ago and today’s cynical corporate equivalent that is imposed upon external environments, regardless of the general public’s irritation.

‘Mr Benn’ was created by the writer and illustrator David McKee, whose character had originally surfaced on the printed page four years before his TV debut in 1971. McKee passed away at the grand old age of 87 last week and his legacy to successive generations of children seems secure. His evergreen 1968 book ‘Elmer the Patchwork Elephant’ was written as a response to racist abuse aimed in the direction of his Anglo-Indian wife and mixed-race daughter in a less-enlightened age; after years as a consistent best-seller, a series of sequels appeared, and the character is particularly popular in the present day, cited as an embryonic example of the ‘diversity’ factor so beloved by publishers of children’s literature in the 21st century. Regardless of whichever Identity Politics demographic has claimed it now, the original book celebrates difference in a way that has a timeless relevance to kids without the need for an accompanying lecture on behalf of any contemporary ‘inclusivity’ agenda. Mr Benn as a character, by contrast with Elmer, is very much an ‘everyman’ representing the anonymity of the era in which he appeared.

Dressed in a suit and bowler hat, Mr Benn was in tune with the antiquated idea of what an everyman represented at the time of his conception, though the fact that few men dress that way today means his conventional uniform has subsequently become his own unique look as distinctive as any superhero costume. Mr Benn’s profession is never specified or referenced, yet by wearing the classic ensemble of the City Gent, one assumes he works in some dreary stockbroker’s office that necessitates a daily commute. What we instead dip into is Mr Benn’s home life; the fact he doesn’t seem to be a married man suggests he has little time for romancing and relies upon his imagination to sustain him in the absence of a spouse. It is with this in mind that we routinely join him on a trip to an obscure fancy dress shop hidden down a side-street, one he is drawn to as an escape from the banal, humdrum life surrounding him on the terraced normality of Festive Road.

Precisely how the fancy dress shop in question ever makes a profit is another unanswered conundrum, as no other customers are ever seen on the premises. Indeed, the man forever known simply as ‘the shopkeeper’ is himself somewhat invisible until he appears ‘as if by magic’ whenever Mr Benn takes a shine to a particular outfit and requests a visit to the changing room. Dressed rather eccentrically in a purple waistcoat, bow-tie, John Lennon ‘granny glasses’ and fez, the shopkeeper is both the facilitator of Mr Benn’s imaginative escapades and the man who curtails them. Where he can be found during the lengthy period between the shop’s sole customer slipping into his fancy dress and then deciding he won’t buy or hire the bloody thing after all is one of life’s great mysteries that it’s probably wise to not explore any further. Suffice to say, the shopkeeper magically reappearing whenever Mr Benn’s latest adventure is nearing its end is as much of a guarantee as night following day.

Dreaming up the fancy dress shop as a gateway to said adventures was one of David McKee’s genius strokes when it comes to this particular character; Mr Benn ventures into the changing room, dons the costume of the week and then wanders from changing room to outdoor location in Narnia-fashion. The location always fits the chosen costume, so if Mr Benn tries on a suit of armour he finds himself in a medieval kingdom; if he slips into an astronaut’s uniform he finds himself in outer space; if he’s dressed as a clown he finds himself in a circus ring and so on. Every child’s imagination takes them to such places whenever they wear the appropriate garb, and Mr Benn lives out their fantasies every episode. The clever twist to blur the lines between fantasy and reality is that Mr Benn never fails to find a souvenir of his adventure once he returns home, planting the exciting idea in the viewers’ heads that he may well just have experienced the adventure for real after all.

‘Mr Benn’, as with all the other ‘Watch with Mother’ shows that had a remarkable longevity, only consisted of 13 initial episodes that forever felt like so much more because they were repeated on a loop for years. Indeed, the enduring popularity of the series eventually resulted in David McKee producing a brand new episode in 2004 for the Nickelodeon network in which his hero emulated the success of ‘Gladiator’ by returning to the fancy dress shop and finding himself in a Roman arena. Every effort was made to slot this new instalment into the narrative of the classic series by recreating the nostalgic ambience of the original, none more so than the revival of the memorable theme tune and incidental music by the jazz musician and composer Duncan Lamont. Happily – unlike rock band reunions – it worked.

‘Mr Benn’ retains a charm characteristic of all the programmes presented under the ‘Watch with Mother’ banner, exuding an innocence emblematic of better days; whether those better days were real or imagined is irrelevant. Like the souvenir Mr Benn always locates in his pocket after the adventure is over, what matters is whether we believe or not. Thanks to the imagination of David McKee – and the golden vocal chords of narrator Ray Brooks – we can believe whenever we revisit an episode. RIP.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

ALL THE WAY FROM PRESTON

Nairn 1Retracing the steps of the late, great architectural critic Ian Nairn is a tricky proposition that one has to plot carefully; take it too far and you’d end up drinking yourself to death as the man himself did at the age of 52 in 1983. His fondness for the public house, about which he wrote with such eloquent verve (especially in his classic 1966 guide to the capital, ‘Nairn’s London’), proved to be his downfall, bringing to a premature end a career that illuminated both the printed page and the television screen in the 60s and 70s. A superbly witty, poetic and passionate writer on architecture and environment, Nairn had sprung to prominence in the mid-50s with his acclaimed ‘Outrage’ edition of the ‘Architectural Review’ magazine, establishing the concept of Subtopia as a dreary development on the post-war landscape and adding his name to the list of the decade’s Angry Young Men.

Although the criminally few books he authored are worth investing in as an example of his skills, the majority of his writing could be found in the Observer in the 60s and then the Sunday Times in the 70s. By this time, he’d also begun a TV career, presenting several idiosyncratic, eccentric and thought-provoking series for the BBC that showcased him as a highly original and refreshingly individual voice. Nairn as a presenter is not a television natural, but his emotional response to the always-intriguing and never-obvious locations he chose to introduce to the viewer can be a compelling experience. His often lugubrious demeanour depended upon whether or not filming took place before or after opening hours, but when his hackles are raised by a depressingly predictable piece of ill-advised town planning characteristic of the era, it regularly appears as though he’s poised to burst into tears, so incensed is he by the loss of a building he evidently adores.

Buildings like the quirky Emporium Arcade in Northampton, which he praised and regarded as worthy of preservation, were swept away despite his pleas; and perhaps the most moving moment of his TV output came when he stood in the gutted carcass of Bolton’s St Saviour church and railed against the men responsible for its imminent demolition. ‘We talk about football vandalism,’ he says in quivering tones. ‘I don’t quite know how you would categorise the vandalism of the yobbos who did this; it makes me ashamed to be part of the same branch of biology.’ It’s as though the ruination of what he describes as one of the town’s ‘most noblest churches’ is the final blow to any hope he still harboured, reducing him to a tragic, Lear-like figure, close to breakdown as he roams from one wasteland to another. It’s rare to see a man’s soul laid bare in such a manner, and when it seemed so many of his heartfelt pleas to the developers to think again constantly fell on deaf ears, it’s reasonable to theorise – as many have – that his weariness with fighting a losing battle accelerated his slide into terminal alcoholism.

The segment in St Saviour church was part of a series Nairn presented in which he visited six unfashionable destinations more familiar as names on a pools coupon than for their architecture; each programme was a game of two halves as he contrasted a pair of ‘football towns’ by selecting places in them that he regarded as notable and interesting. The Bolton edition was coupled with a visit to Preston, with Nairn beginning at the North End home of its historical football club and then working his way into the town centre. Having watched this edition numerous times over the years – and so few of his TV programmes are available that one tends to view the same small number – I found myself in Preston last week, and it was inevitable I sought out the locations he had highlighted, wondering whether or not they’d improved or deteriorated in the half-century that had elapsed since his visit.

Although Preston is now officially a city, it still has the feel of a classic provincial town built on 19th century industry, albeit one with the ambition that eventually resulted in its promotion to that of metropolis. That ambition can be seen in the Guild Hall, a modern (1972) building Nairn singled out as a fine example of Preston’s refusal to rest on its Victorian laurels. Much of the original redbrick exterior of the Guild Hall has subsequently been clad in wood to perhaps bring it into line with contemporary tastes, though the confidence the building exudes, one that so caught Nairn’s eye, remains. Nairn’s judgement was never clouded by simple nostalgia; he was just as eager to celebrate the best of the new as he was to preserve the best of the old, and his enthusiasm for Preston’s modernist bus station is typical of how he could see the good in an edifice many traditionalists might have greeted with disdain. Bar one or two alterations to the outside, the dramatic sweeping concrete curves housing the multi-storey car-park above the bus station are intact.

Amongst Preston’s ‘heritage’ buildings to have happily survived is its distinctive market hall, which Nairn rightly praised due to its half-in/half-out appearance, with the cast iron roof protruding out into the street and open to the elements; a collection of market stalls which stood on the pedestrianised square in front of the town’s impressive slice of classic Victorian civic pride, the Harris Art Gallery and Museum, has now gone; but the square itself – including a towering cenotaph – seems largely untouched. When Nairn was there, the town centre was undergoing the introduction of a frustrating one-way system, which appears to discourage the sightseer from travelling around it as a motorist; the best way to really explore the place, as Nairn discovered, is on foot. And one of the best things about Preston from the point of view of the pedestrian is the fact that all the areas Nairn visited are within a short walking distance of each other. A side-street off the main shopping thoroughfare, which is now wholly pedestrianised, leads to a unique public square – a ‘sunken’ one.

Rather than the flat, neat Georgian squares one associates with London, Winkley Square was deliberately not levelled out and left as nature intended. A tranquil little oasis that provides office workers with a bucolic interlude from the urban hustle and bustle, it serves as a prelude to what is probably Preston’s best-kept secret just round the corner – and this was a location Nairn only gives a brief glimpse of on screen. For all the current (and clueless) fashion for portraying the Victorians as one-dimensional imperial heathens, there’s no disputing the lasting legacy they left on Britain’s best towns and cities, none more so than one of their most necessary innovations intended to be enjoyed by everyone, the public park; and Preston’s Avenham Park is one of the finest in the land. Outside of the capital, it’s quite unusual to find such a vast green space smack bang in a city centre rather than out in the suburbs, and the mere snippet that appears on Nairn’s ‘Football Towns’ series gives no real indication of the sheer scale of that space when one actually sets foot in it. It’s also clear from the 1970s programme that a good deal of loving restoration has taken place since the great man took a look at it; an imposing statue of three-times 19th century Lancastrian Prime Minister the Earl of Derby is included in the roll-call of sights to see, and the longest-serving leader of any British political party (22 years) did set me wondering if statues of any current party leaders might one day grace such a space. Somehow, I doubt it.

Ian Nairn ends his summary of Preston and Bolton by recommending the viewer makes the effort to visit these neglected towns and I’m pleased to say that, 30-odd years after my initial viewing of the programme, I finally made the effort. I may have been standing on the shoulders of a giant, but I did so sober, and the Gods shone down on me with an early burst of spring sunshine that made the jaunt all the more memorable. I can think of worse ways to spend a weekend.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

FOUR OF US

BeatlesMomentary escapism from a world that seems to relish serving up a fresh dish of despair and despondency to its population every passing year seems an essential panacea right now. It can be manifested in many different ways, specifically tailored to suit the unique tastes of each individual, and its position on the scale of trivia is immaterial. Whatever simple pleasure makes you happy is worth indulging in at times like these. During Lockdown Mk I and beyond, I found walking a friend’s dog once a week was the best breath of fresh air and the most unpretentious reward for a week entombed indoors on offer; and even with the present-tense pandemic receding (albeit not its long-term legacy), the latest crisis has necessitated the need for time-out, whether that be a few hours away from social media – or penning a post. Dog-sitting the same pooch that provided light relief when outdoor excursions were being rationed has become an occasional outlet of late, but the home I dog-sit in also contains another window into a world a million miles from 2022 – well, 53 years, to be precise.

When Peter Jackson’s ‘Get Back’ project was premiered on the Disney + digital channel at the back end of last year, it was accompanied by a deluge of YouTube reviews from people who had hurriedly subscribed to a streaming service usually patronised by parents to little ‘uns obsessed with ‘Frozen’ and the like. Suddenly, it had become attractive to an entirely different demographic, one fired by the media previews of the cleaned-up, Hi-Definition incarnation of footage that had been slogging around the bootleg circuit in appalling picture quality for decades. Not prepared to temporarily add another channel to the dozens I never watch, I was waiting for an eventual DVD release to finally view a series spread into three tantalising movie-length episodes; but dog-sitting in a house containing Disney + has given me an opportunity to catch up with something most Beatles fans rushed to watch together a few months back. And it was worth the wait as, for once, the hype is justified.

For the few still wallowing in ignorance, ‘Get Back’ was the original title of what eventually became the Beatles’ uneven swansong, ‘Let it Be’. At the beginning of 1969, less than two months after releasing the White Album, the band sought to capitalise on the recent energising experience of recording the ‘Hey Jude’ promo, with its novel audience participation; eager to keep the creative juices flowing, Paul McCartney felt this might be a way for the band to return to live performance. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg had just filmed ‘The Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus’, showing there were new means of playing live for acts that had been scarred by screaming girls on the touring treadmill. Conceived as a TV documentary of the band rehearsing new numbers that would climax with a live show before an invited audience, the ambitious ‘Get Back’ didn’t work out as planned and was swiftly reduced to a posthumous album and movie, released a year after its making and at a moment when the former Fab Four were not exactly on speaking terms. It wasn’t the most impressive of obituaries, and the cynical way the film was edited by Lindsay-Hogg established a narrative that had remained intact for half-a-century.

True, there was an infamous ‘argument’ between Paul McCartney and George Harrison captured on camera; true, George walked out on the band for a few days thereafter; true, the chilly environs of Twickenham film studios early in the morning were not especially conducive to harmonious vibes; true, McCartney came across as an overbearing martinet; true, the constant presence of Yoko Ono at John Lennon’s side appeared to be an impediment to recreating the spirit of the band that the project was intended to deliver. All of this was portrayed with funereal finality in the original movie and the fact none of the ex-Beatles in the years following its release had a good word to say about it helped perpetuate the narrative seemingly forevermore. Its sole saving grace was the legendary ‘rooftop concert’ on a cold, wet January morning atop the Apple HQ on Savile Row; but opportunities to see it after the movie’s 1970 release were limited to clips in documentaries or bootleg copies of an early 80s home video version of the film, with the piss-poor visuals and sound quality adding to the negative perception of the enterprise.

Plans to restore and re-release ‘Let it Be’ in recent decades have been repeatedly stymied by one ex-Beatle (or ex-Beatle widow) or another, leaving the film as a bit of an absent friend in the Beatles’ story. The unexpected invitation for director-turned-documentary-maker Peter Jackson to wade through hundreds of hours of unused footage from the ‘Let it Be’ sessions was probably inspired by the astonishing job he did on presenting the First World War as a full-colour conflict in ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’. For Beatles fan Jackson, all his Christmases came at once as he took on the challenge of retelling a tale that had never been fully told and making it the kind of visual and musical experience that the 1970 film failed so badly to achieve. The global pandemic delayed the scheduled 50th anniversary release, albeit giving Jackson and his team more breathing space to develop new ways of improving the audio and expanding the running time. The first results of their efforts were trailed online last year and the thumbs-up was universal – it looked and sounded amazing. Gone were the grainy, murky washed-out shades of the tenth-generation VHS versions and in came colour of the Blu-ray variety, HD-sharp with a clarity that put the viewer in the room with the Fab Four – a laughing, convivial Fab Four contradicting the hand-me-down myth of the ‘Let it Be’ project.

The series shows that the shared sense of humour which had been such a vital component of what made those four individuals gel as a unit hadn’t been dealt a mortal blow by Yoko’s presence after all. Far from being savagely sardonic and disinterested, Lennon appears as lively and witty as ever; moreover, McCartney comes across as less of a control freak and more of an artist at the peak of his powers, oozing magic melodies from every pore. There were concerns Jackson’s facelift might present a sanitised rewrite of the story, but moments of tension remain in the final cut, especially the day after George’s exit; when it looks as if Lennon won’t be showing-up either, the horrible realisation dawns on McCartney that everything might be about to collapse. The camera zooms in on his tearful countenance as he almost whispers ‘And then there were two’. It’s a remarkably moving moment.

As well as the tracks that ended up on ‘Let it Be’, the January 1969 sessions also feature numerous songs that constituted a large chunk of ‘Abbey Road’, not to mention a sizeable amount of material that would only see the light of day on the post-split solo albums of 1970 and ’71. When one hears The Beatles work through Lennon’s ‘Gimme Some Truth’ or Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’, it’s immediately evident these great songs would’ve been even greater had the four recorded them together. Far from being the creative cul-de-sac of legend, the ‘Get Back’ sessions find the band in the thick of a stunning purple patch; it also underlines the theory that all their finest material – even what became solo stuff – was written when they were still together. One of the joys of the fly-on-the-wall element of ‘Get Back’ is witnessing the genesis of songs happen before one’s eyes. The title track itself appears out of nowhere as a chugging McCartney riff, morphs into a satirical comment on Enoch Powell’s recent ‘rivers of blood’ speech, and gradually takes shape before our eyes and ears as the song we’re all familiar with. It’s a real privilege to share the journey.

‘Get Back’ is as essential an addition to the Beatles legacy as anything released during the band’s lifetime, and far superior to Apple’s endless repackaging and needless remixing of material already available. What’s incredible to realise when watching is not one of the band is yet 30 as we see them in the dazzling twilight of their time together as cultural ambassadors in whose hands our culture was safe; and when Ringo gazes awe-struck at Paul picking gems out of thin air at the keyboard, his touching comment to his band-mate, ‘I could watch you play the piano all day’, sums up a special chemistry of which we all continue to be grateful beneficiaries. And it’s certainly worth reconnecting with the best mankind can offer at a moment when all we seem to be surrounded by is the worst.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

SAILING BY

James and ElizabethYes, it’s a bit windy at the moment – even if a few sheds ripped away from their Home Counties moorings don’t exactly suggest a ‘twister’ of the kind that cuts a devastating swathe through various American States every once in a while. At least the wind was once a friend to the sailor, though, providing what would today be called an eco-friendly fuel back in the age of the sailing ships that explored the globe and helped build the Empire. In a way, I’m a typical land-lubber in that I tune in to the Shipping Forecast for the romantic roll-call, but my personal experience of a life on the ocean waves has been restricted to a cross-channel ferry and a one-off fishing trip in a motor boat over 40 years ago. Perhaps therein lies the enduring appeal of one notable absentee from my occasional Winegum retrospectives on 1970s TV shows that constitute a high proportion of my DVD viewing time, one currently being revisited after a gap of several years – albeit not quite as many years since it pioneered the Sunday evening pre-watershed drama slot that has subsequently become home to ‘Antiques Roadshow’.

Unless it’s of the sugar-coated ‘Call the Midwife’ variety, the big money splashed out on BBC drama is now channelled into series very much aimed at an exclusively adult audience. Pre-watershed, the post-nuclear family – in all its numerous permutations – has to settle for the output of actors and writers who still look and sound like they belong in the am-dram wasteland of afternoon soaps. Perhaps the change in viewing habits and the increasingly unlikely scenario of all age groups sitting down to watch a programme together at the same time has led to this sorry state of affairs. Not so fifty years ago, when standards were extremely high across the schedules and a series intended for every member of the household was not some throwaway melodrama forgotten as soon as the closing credits rolled, but a compelling saga boasting actors and writers of a calibre comparable to anything aired later in the evening.

Created by experienced television writer Cyril Abraham, ‘The Onedin Line’ spanned almost a decade, setting sail in 1971 and finally dropping anchor for good in 1980. Only three members of the original cast lasted the voyage, though one of them was the leading man of the series, an actor previously famed for more comic portrayals. However, as when Jon Pertwee proved himself a more than capable action hero upon donning the flamboyant ensemble of the third Doctor Who, Peter Gilmore commanded such a charismatic dramatic presence when strolling the deck as James Onedin, it was hard to believe this was the same man who’d ogled Barbara Windsor in ‘Carry on Camping’. As a character, James Onedin is arrogant, obstinate, brash and belligerent, a risk-taking gambler when it comes to business, and a born fighter – essentially in possession of all the qualities that could be found in every real-life self-made man who rapidly rose through the ranks in Victorian society because he knew how to make money.

James Onedin emanated from shop-keeping stock, his father being a chandler by the Liverpool docks; like many a young man at the time with a craving to see beyond his narrow horizons, the lure of a sailor’s life was too much of a temptation for Onedin and he left his pompous, penny-pinching brother Robert to inherit the family business. Taking the king’s shilling as a soldier or starting one’s working life as a cabin boy in the merchant navy were more or less the only options open to those from humble origins if one wanted to see something of the world; and for all its dangers, the sea was a more attractive prospect than the foreign field of conflict. The Industrial Revolution had opened another door for the entrepreneurial working-classes and James Onedin’s desire to emulate the wealthy ship-owners employing him as a captain is where we join the story; eager to found his own line, he eyes a ship for sale, though his efforts to negotiate with the retired old soak selling it flounder until Captain Webster’s daughter Anne makes James an offer: he can have the ship if he marries her. To the shock of his family, the unsentimental Onedin agrees to what he himself sees as a purely business arrangement.

Anne Onedin is played beautifully by Anne Stallybrass (later to become Mrs Peter Gilmore). The ‘Plain Jane’ left on the shelf who seizes her last opportunity for marriage by including herself in the sale of her father’s ship faced a fate common to many women at the time, yet against the odds a genuine affection swiftly develops between the unlikely couple. Anne becomes James’s conscience, curbing his often fiery temper and forcing him to moderate his occasionally uncaring attitude to those around him; she rapidly wins over the sceptical Onedin family and also finds favour with James’s long-term second-in-command, the gruff, no-nonsense Captain Baines. Baines (played by veteran whiskered thespian Howard Lang) is one of the era’s most memorable TV characters as the plain-talking old sea dog with a stronger moral code than Onedin himself. Along with Jessica Benton as James’s flirty sister Elizabeth, Baines helps give the series its dramatic colour, elevating it above the cast of cardboard cut-outs and Identity Politics ciphers that pepper today’s primetime equivalent.

Elizabeth Onedin eventually rises through the ranks with a speed that often exceeds that of her elder brother. After an ill-fated marriage to the son of a rival shipping magnate, she inherits a competing line to the Onedin one and then finally marries the man who impregnated her out of wedlock, Daniel Fogarty. When he is gradually honoured for his charitable works, she becomes Lady Fogarty, though her wandering eye for a bit of rough (usually in possession of facial hair) never wavers.

As the series moves on, the years pass (1860 to 1886 is the actual timeline covered). In the beginning, steam ships are an expensive experimental novelty; by the end, the characters are employing the telephone as a tool of communication, and politics of the time occasionally intervene, such as the American Civil War or the occupation of Paris by the Communards; it is this gentle albeit not intrusive social history element that gives ‘The Onedin Line’ an added appeal. For example, I’d never have known guano (i.e. bird-shit) had once been such a valuable commodity as fertiliser if it weren’t for ‘The Onedin Line’. The passing of time also enables a ‘Forsyte Saga’ aspect to develop as the offspring of the original Onedin dynasty move centre stage in the later series, becoming major characters in their own right.

As with any long-running drama, a degree of repetition does begin to creep in as the series progresses. James routinely loses a fortune, but always manages to make it back again. A wealthy villain regularly moves into town and befriends various members of the Onedin family in order to ruin our hero and seize control of the shipping empire – a generic character played in different series by the likes of Ed Devereaux, Warren Clarke and Frederick Jaeger; and for all his obsession with profit, James Onedin proves himself to be no slouch where the fairer sex are concerned. Following the genuinely moving (and somewhat premature) death of Anne in childbirth, Onedin eventually marries his daughter’s nanny Letty (played by Jill Gascoine) and takes a new bride in the shape of the exotic Margarita come the final series when Letty passes away off-camera (whilst Gascoine crossed channels to front ‘The Gentle Touch’).

Dismissed by some as little more than a costume drama soap, ‘The Onedin Line’ has considerably more to offer than the usual, tiresome litany of ‘issues’ as it documents the fierce competitive circles 19th century empire-builders moved in and the effect they had on their nearest and dearest. A compelling cast of characters and the never-dull drama of the high seas rarely had a more fitting outlet than this archive gem.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294